Orange County government leaders are lending their support to a statewide movement to change the way society approaches children and teenagers who commit crimes.

At a juvenile justice summit Friday organized by Superior Court and county government officials, the event’s keynote speaker – the chief justice of the California Supreme Court – emphasized the importance of keeping youth in school and providing social and academic support.

That support, said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is key to reducing the likelihood of more criminal behavior in the future – and all the societal costs that brings.

The “keeping our kids in school [and out of the court] initiative is the solution…to put money on the front end, rather than the back end,” Cantil-Sakauye, told hundreds of local city, county, and state leaders.

“It makes you wonder about resources thrown away and away and away and away” at repeat offenders, she added, asking whether society should instead be putting some of those resources toward targeting the root causes of criminal behavior.

About 70 percent of state prison inmates were involved in the foster care system at some point in their lives, noted Orange County’s presiding juvenile court judge, Maria Hernandez, adding that large numbers of children in the juvenile justice system have mental illnesses.

Local officials in Orange County have been working hard to meet youth “where they’re at” through drug courts, boys’ and girls’ courts, and a court for sexually exploited children, she said.

But while officials want to expand those collaborative efforts, Hernandez said, they’re “feeling the pinch” when it comes to the resources needed to follow through.

Key to expanding those efforts, Cantil-Sakauye said, is getting all 34 cities in Orange County to partner on the issue and pursue it together with Sacramento lawmakers. “It’s changing the hearts and minds of people, and it’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens with a collective effort,” she said.

The advocacy could include meeting directly with legislators and speaking about issues that grab their attention, as well as inviting them to watch juvenile court for a day.

“Mobilize as a county to show the decision-maker, your representatives in the legislature,” what is happening in your county, Cantil-Sakauye said.

The chief justice’s speech highlighted a day that also featured panel discussions with county social services and probation directors and speeches from Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer, among others.

After Cantil-Sakauye’s address, two psychology professors from UC Irvine spoke about research into what causes violent behavior.

Dr. Elizabeth Cauffman noted that while people often reach intellectual maturity around age 16, the part of the brain that handles impulse control, long-term thinking and resisting peer influences – known as the prefrontal cortex – doesn’t finish developing until about age 25.

To better understand how different approaches to juvenile justice affect youth, Cauffman and other researchers at UC Irvine are in the midst of a multi-year study looking at over 1,200 male youth first time offenders in Orange County and two other areas in the U.S.

Two years in, the “Crossroads” study has found, among other things, that formally processing juveniles through the court system worsens depression and other mental health problems.

Dr. Jodi Quas, meanwhile, noted a “cycle of violence” that gets passed on from generation to generation.

Children who are treated with cruelty or violence, particularly by parents, are at a much higher risk of violence and aggression, Quas said. They often end up in juvenile and criminal justice system, and then maltreat their own children who then go into the criminal justice system and the cycle continues.

Research is pointing to “emotional competence” – or a person’s ability to understand, express, and control their emotions – as having a key role in adolescent crime and delinquency, Quas said.

For example, a study in Orange County found that the most aggressive young adolescents – many of whom were from violent homes – often inaccurately perceived hostility from people who weren’t hostile toward them.

If you’re interpreting your world as hostile and then react, that’s a recipe for aggression and violence and can “get lots of children in trouble with the law,” Quas said, adding that by collaborating among various groups and agencies, “we can actually work together to address some of these” issues.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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